By Sasha Simic | 4 October 2014
Part one of our special two-part essay looked at how superheroes emerged in the 1930s and the ideology they carried. By the 1960s, Batman and Wonder Woman had rivals in Marvel Comics’ Spiderman and the Fantastic Four…
The new superheroes came into being in the shadow of the nuclear arms race and rivalry between Washington and Moscow – Cold Warriors, intent on rooting out the “reds under the bed”. But the politics of Marvel were about to undergo a huge shift.
This is Stan Lee, writer of the Fantastic Four, looking back in 1975 at the origins of Iron-Man:
For the purposes of this story, there’s a North Vietnamese general who’s the very epitome of a comic book bad guy. The good guy is a noble American helping the noble Vietnamese battle the sinister Commies from the North.
Now it’s important that you bear in mind that this was written in 1963 at a time when most of us genuinely felt that the conflict in that tortured land really was a simple matter of good versus evil and that the American military action against the Viet Cong was tantamount to St George’s battle against the dragon. Since that time we’ve all grown up a bit, we’ve realised that life isn’t quite so simple, and we’ve all been trying to extricate ourselves from the entanglement of Indochina.
Lee’s politics are summed up in the first adventure of Spiderman which could have been written for Kennedy’s administration as it prepared to go into Vietnam (see left).
But the Civil Rights movement, the student protests and the protests against the Vietnam War of the sixties all ate into Marvel’s anti-communism. As its readership grew more radical, Marvel was forced to become more progressive.
Marvel began to run stories dealing with racism and racist villains like the Hate Monger (The Fantastic Four #21, December 1963) and the Klan-like Sons of the Serpent (Avengers #32-33, December 1966).
In Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) they introduced the first black superhero. The Black Panther predates the formation of the Black Panther Party by four months. The Panther was the rich and sophisticated king of Wakanda. He later became a regular member of The Avengers.
Marvel was selling 13m copies of its comics in 1963 and 50m by 1968. The stories were more complex and rewarding than those of its competitors. The characters had negative traits and bickered and argued with each other. They had soap-opera love lives. Some had money problems. They mostly lived in New York and crossed-over into each other’s comics. The art (largely by Jack Kirby) was vibrant and dynamic.
But by end of the 1960s Marvel was stalling. Kirby had deserted to DC Comics. Sales were faltering and Marvel tried to get into new markets by reviving the horror genre.
But the radicalism of period meant they (and DC) tried to reflect the times with more “relevant” comic books. They got a new generation of younger, more left-wing artists creating more politically engaged material.
In Green Lantern / Green Arrow #85 September 1971, Green Arrow’s ward – the unfortunately named Speedy – became hooked on heroin.
Look… sure, I’m ticked off at the pushers because they prey on weakness — but that doesn’t mean my heart bleeds for junkies. Life is tough for everyone. If you want to claim humanity, you don’t crawl into a drugged stupor. – Green Arrow
Left politics became more overt in mainstream superhero comics. Green Lantern discovered racism existed when writer Denny O’Neil thought about the educative power of comics. In 2003 he told a TV documentary:
It was too late for my generation but if you get a real smart 12 year old and set him thinking about racism…
More black superheroes appeared and, unlike the rich foreign King T’Chala (Black Panther), these were working class, urban American characters like the Falcon and Black Goliath (both Marvel) and Black Lightning (DC). In addition there was Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (Marvel), who later became Power Man (It took me ages to work out he was now Black Power Man).
You might notice the prominence of the word “black” in these titles – although neither Marvel nor DC had had titles like White Batman or White Thor, much less Green Hulk.
Here’s how Black Goliath was introduced to readers:
Bill Foster – Dr William Barrett Foster, DSc, PhD – a child of the GHETTO who has pulled himself up out of the Los Angeles slums to become director of one of the nation’s most prestigious research labs. A man whose research has given him the power to instantaneously grow to a height of FIFTEEN FEET, with the strength of a TRUE GIANT. A man who has become… a HERO.
That was not written by a “child of the ghetto” – or even a black writer. And it was not until the mid-1970s that Marvel Comics employed a black artist, Ron Wilson.
In many ways this cycle was the comics equivalent of the Blaxploitation film genre. The white superheroes got to take on space-gods like Galactus – the black ones fought pimps and pushers in the ghetto.
The women’s liberation movement also began to be reflected in superhero comics.
And not even Iron-Man – the multi-millionaire arms manufacturer Tony Stark – could avoid labour disputes in his factories in the radical 1970s. In 1972, the militant opponent Firebrand (right), with the clenched-fist symbol on his chest, told him:
I am the voice of your children mister – the non-meek who intend to inherit the Earth.
By 1973, Iron-Man had repented of his past as an arms manufacturer and pushed his businesses into environmental and alternative energy projects. He faced strikes when his workforce was manipulated by his arch-enemy the Mandarin.
And Iron-Man’s writer was even allowed to have the character re-assess the Vietnam War in 1975 (below). The 1970s comics show how superhero characters had to reflect the outside world and were shaped according to the level of struggle.
The political turmoil of the period was also reflected when Captain America went through a Watergate-inspired story arc that saw him lose faith in the US and for a brief period he became Nomad – the man without a country.
The Watergate-inspired tales strongly suggested that the mastermind behind an evil organisation was one Richard Nixon…
At the end of the 1970s and early 1980s the political pendulum swung back to the right with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. Iron-Man became a Cold Warrior once more, beating up his old Soviet enemy from the 1960s, the Titanium Man and becoming a mouthpiece for the glories of free-enterprise.
For all the flirting with radicalism that had gone on in the 1970s, as Christian Dailly of Liverpool John Moores University writes:
(Superheroes) lived in a Manichean world: they were always ready to avert catastrophes, help damsels in distress, prevent crimes being committed or injustice being done, and to save the world. The criminals they fought were super-criminals; and the crimes committed, even if they were symptoms of sickness in a society, were never stated because the super-heroes were interested in the “battle” not in the removal of its causes. They thought, spoke and acted in clichés. Moral distinctions between “good” and “evil” were clean-cut and precise; ie, the villain was “bad” and the hero was “good”. Justice was seen to be done and that was it.
But this model of the superhero started to fall apart in the 1980s – a process that continues to this day. While superhero comics in the US sank into formulaic sterility something was going on in the UK. Two new titles – 2000 AD (1977) and Warrior (1982) – were spearheading a revival of comics in Britain.
Judge Dredd was a response to Thatcher’s “short sharp shock” approach to law and order. Dredd is not a superhero. He’s an agent of the state, not a vigilante. But he was and is very political, holding out a challenge to other characters.
When Bauchard wrote “It is exceptional to find a superman who is an anarchist or a revolutionary” that was true in 1950s but it wasn’t true in the 1980s.
Warrior had two superheroes. One was “V” from V for Vendetta – an anarchist superhero fighting to overthrow a future fascist state who detonates a revolution. That’s where the Guy Fawkes mask we see on anti-capitalist mobilisations across the world comes from.
The series was created by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd. Lloyd is happy that:
The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.
The other superhero was Marvelman, who took the superhero fantasy to its logical conclusion. Marvelman and his fellow superhumans take over the running of the planet, overthrowing Thatcher and ushering in a utopia without hunger or environmental destruction (see right).
In the US Frank Miller gave us a definitive Batman in The Dark Knight Returns (1986), portraying an America shaken by Bernard Goetz who shot four black men in a New York subway in 1984 and was acquitted. Miller integrated 50 years of mythology into his work to give us the Gothic Batman and to tell a story that questioned vigilantism.
He re-worked Superman as a puppet of the state… “a man who’ll say ‘yes’ to anyone with a badge”. Obedient to Ronald Reagan and prepared to help with US imperialist adventures, Superman was shown as the embodiment of US military superiority: “We’ve got God on our side or the next best thing.”
Miller’s Superman conforms to the description of the superhero which Philippe Bauchard complied for UNESCO in 1950 (See part one).
The 1980s produced a number of superhero comics that dealt with political themes – the Second Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, environmental destruction, and US imperialism and proxy wars in Latin America. Many of these comics were written for the American market by British artists and writers who had come out of 2000 AD.
In 1986 Northampton-based writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons produced the magnificent and deeply influential Watchmen which united superheroics with Cold War politics.
Looking back in 2010, Moore said:
There hasn’t been a more sophisticated comic released in the 25 years since, which I find profoundly depressing, because it was intended to be something that expanded the possibilities of comics rather than what it has apparently become – a massive psychological stumbling block that the rest of the industry has yet to find a way round.
That isn’t necessarily true.
In 1987 Pat Mills and artist Kevin O’Neill cast superheroes as agents of US imperialism in their Marshal Law strip. Marshal Law was a future cop à la Judge Dredd, who policed delinquent gangs of “superheroes” who were actually scientifically enhanced soldiers once used by the US to fight covert wars in Latin America.
As in all wars the state leaves its war-damaged troops to fend for themselves once the fighting’s over. In the course of his adventures Marshal Law meets and despatches thinly disguised versions of Superman, Batman and the whole Marvel universe.
Into the 21st century: the War on Terror
The events of 9/11 and the War on Terror produced a variety of responses from the genre. One was knee-jerk patriotism. Both DC and Marvel produced comics glorifying the role of New York’s emergency services in the wake of 9/11. But there was more. In Amazing Spiderman #2/36 which came out in December 2001, four of Marvel’s heavyweight super-villains – Kingpin, Doctor Octopus, Magneto and Doctor Doom – visit Ground Zero.
These are the worst villains in the Marvel universe… but Doctor Doom weeps at the atrocity. Marvel’s judgement on the nature of the crime couldn’t be clearer.
We could not see it coming. We could not be here before it happened. We could not stop it. But we are here now.
Marvel Comics went further and produced a number of specials on the Iraq war including Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq following a trail that would lead to that ceremony with Donald Rumsfeld, Captain America and Spiderman in the Pentagon (See part one).
Naked jingoism has not been the sole response by comics to the War on Terror. Both Marvel and DC also re-worked their most famous characters to reflect the ambivalence and distrust of the real-life super power felt by many in the wake of the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Crisis of the superheroes
This is evident in Identity Crisis, DC’s limited series of 2004. Written by best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer it’s a grim tale that opens with the rape and murder of Sue Danby, the wife of stretching superhero the Elongated Man. In the wake of the killing, a number of superheroes take to the streets in search of vengeance.
But while they assault various super-villains, the actual serial killer continues to stalk their nearest and dearest. Robin’s father is murdered and the Atom’s ex-wife is nearly hanged. For all their super-powers the heroes of the DC universe seem incapable of protecting their families, never mind society at large. Afraid for their loved ones and themselves, their behaviour becomes less and less heroic.
Long established codes respecting the rights of adversaries are ignored as they struggle to find ethical ways of dealing with their enemies. In the thirties the prototype superhero of the pulps, Doc Savage, “reformed” the villains he met with lobotomies.
That kind of solution never truly crossed over into the comics but in investigating Sue Danby’s murder, Batman stumbles across a terrible secret shared by key DC heroes that begs the question of whether they are “the good guys” after all. This is a dark and often sordid story in which clear, primary coloured icons like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman appear muddied in the shadow of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition.
Around the same time Marvel Comics, which nearly went bankrupt in in the mid-1990s, created an alternative line of comics in which their most famous creations were re-imagined for a new generation.
Free of forty years of sclerotic continuity, creators were given space to cast a much more jaundiced eye over the whole concept of super-powered vigilantes. The imprint was originally going to be called Ground Zero.
The most successful title was The Avengers reworked as The Ultimates (2002). Set in post-9/11 America, the comic’s premise deals with a super-team created by the US military to deliver “full spectrum dominance”. Its members are part weapons of mass destruction and part tabloid celebrities. This is the series that inspired the look of the 2012 film and was where the character of Nick Fury, previously a white John Wayne type, was re-drawn to look like Samuel L Jackson.
It was also where the Hulk would go on rampages that would leave New York in rubble with many dead. The Ultimates’ version of Tony Stark was much closer to the version we see in the Iron-Man films, as played by Robert Downey junior.
And Thor was re-imagined as a leading figure in the anti-capitalist movement:
Take a look around you, Captain… your world is being bled dry while your people grow dull-eyed and hypnotised by reality TV and Playstation 2. I’m here to wake you all up again before mankind sleepwalks their way into oblivion.
The Ultimates’ leader was a much more aggressive incarnation of Captain America. He is prepared to fight dirty to win and brings the Hulk down with a kick to his balls. This was the Avengers reincarnated as a strike force waging George Bush’s War on Terror – something that is all too clear in a fight scene where Captain America is asked to surrender (right).
The first series ended with the Ultimates invading Iraq on the premise that it had weapons of mass destruction, without realising that they are weapons of mass destruction in the service of the US government…
I could go on: there is Illuminati (2005), the secret group of top Marvel heroes – the “good guys” – whose plans to shape the world repeatedly misfire, or Civil War (2006) which divided the heroes of the Marvel universe into two hostile camps, according to whether they were for or against registering with the government as state employees…
All this reflected a profound disquiet with the world and a deep uncertainty as to what constituted “heroism”.
Superheroes are not an intrinsically reactionary genre. They are contested, and how they develop and what stories they tell are not just matters for writers and publishers to dispense to a passive readership. The superheroes are shaped by the times they appear in and, as a result, by the level of class struggle. This is not a mechanical process – often it is not even a conscious process – and it is driven by contradictory forces. This means there is space for subversion.
Popular culture is shaped by the outside world. There is a complicated, reciprocal relationship between cultural production and the material world. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola wrote: “Ideas do not fall from heaven, and nothing comes to us in a dream.”
Superheroes can be reactionary – but they don’t automatically have to be. In any case stories that treat superheroes as reactionary can also tell progressive tales. Genre does not dictate quality, nor profundity, nor politics.
Have superheroes transcended their genre to produce literature – as Chandler did with the detective novel and as Le Carre has with spy fiction?
Maybe. Watchmen made The Times’ list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century. In addition I’d like to nominate The Winter Men by John Lewis and John Paul Leon, which was published by Wildstorm in 2005. This was about a cohort of the Russia’s Rocket Men – the USSR’s version of Iron-Man – struggling to cope in a post-Soviet Russia run by oligarchs unleashing shock-and-awe privatisation.
The vast majority of superhero comics remain repetitive, formulaic, nostalgic, sexist, and dull. But they don’t have to be. In 1950 Captain America’s comic warned:
Beware, Commies, spies, traitors and foreign agents! Captain America, with all loyal, free men behind him, is looking for you, ready to fight until the last one of you is exposed for the yellow scum that you are!
In 1969 Stan Lee wrote Captain America the following monologue:
This is the day of the anti-hero – the age of the rebel and the dissenter! It isn’t hip to defend the establishment only to tear it down! And in a world rife with injustice, greed and endless war – who’s to say the rebels are wrong?
I’ve spent a lifetime defending the flag – and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less – and questioned more!
In 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film deeply distrustful of the power of the state and the liberties that have been undermined by the war on terror, Captain America is shown a huge arsenal bristling with state of the art weapons ready to “neutralise a lot of threats before they happen”.
Captain America responds: “This isn’t Freedom. This is Fear”
And the latest incarnation of Ms Marvel isn’t a busty white beauty, like the 1970s Ms Marvel. She’s Kamala Khan – a Muslim-American teenager. That’s progress!